Cricket: England's high hope in Jamaica

Andrew Longmore finds firmer grounds than normal for believing in Caribbean success
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The Independent Online
FOR all the meticulous planning, the mountain biking and the scuba diving, England's preparations for the First Test have been hampered by an unseasonal outbreak of rain in Antigua and an even rarer bout of common sense among the members of the West Indies Cricket Board. In reality, the WIBC had little option but to accept the selection of Brian Lara as the new captain, even if the circumstances of his elevation to the post he has regarded as his inheritance for so long are far from ideal. On the one hand, the West Indies can sink no lower than their defeat in Pakistan; on the other, leading a divided side on to Courtney Walsh's home ground for the First Test in front of 15,000 Jamaicans will stretch the Prince of Trinidad's volatile temperament to the limit.

"A tricky seat," said Lara, a rare understatement from a batsman of such extravagance, but a neat description of a role which would test the diplomatic skills of Machiavelli. Few doubt his tactical credentials, but Walsh's response to demotion will be critical. The opening Test, which begins on 29 January, is assuming apocalyptic proportions already.

The last England side who went to the West Indies fully prepared, in 1990, won the First Test, should have won the Third and only lost the series when deprived of Graham Gooch, leader and inspiration, with a broken hand. Provided they can remember which end of the bat to hold after all of three months, there should be real hope in English hearts, a change from the sinking feeling experienced rather lower in the anatomy by so many of their predecessors. For once, there is some justification for the burgeoning self-confidence.

If consistency remains elusive, experience, cohesion and team spirit are a reasonable basis for negotiation in the Caribbean and England have those qualities in abundance. The Australians exposed mental and technical deficiencies; the West Indians work to a more staccato beat, applying and releasing pressure, probing courage and concentration. But Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe, Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart, with eight Caribbean tours between them, know the form. The captain has already hammered home the peculiar rhythms of batting in the Caribbean where over rates can slow to a saunter.

Wisely, David Lloyd, the England coach, and Atherton are trying to ignore the West Indies' recent form in Pakistan, which, even in the halcyon days, was never their favourite tourist spot. Whatever limitations have been exposed, in the opening partnership, in the second-line pace bowling and the spin department, playing England in front of their own people will be a very different proposition. If Ambrose rumbles into life and the new captain is inspired by responsibility, experience could turn to recurring nightmare for the eight of the current England party who collapsed to 46 all out at Queen's Park Trinidad four years ago or for Angus Fraser, Andy Caddick and Phil Tufnell, who suffered Lara's song to the tune of 389 runs between them in Antigua. Cricket, as played by the West Indians, still elevates individual brilliance above team ethics. England will need to sense the moment and don the flak jackets.

Yet, for all Lara's magic and a proven ability to switch gears, time is tight for a West Indian transformation. Whatever the side chosen for Jamaica, it will be experimental, reliant on Walsh (35) and Curtly Ambrose (34) who can apply for a joint bus pass these days, and a proven ability to pluck fast bowlers from nowhere: Colin Croft, who took 33 wickets in his debut series, against Pakistan, in 1977, Patrick Patterson against England 10 years on or Franklyn Rose, a strapping Jamaican relatively new to the England batsmen who, with 6 for 100 against India on his home ground 10 months ago, produced the best figures of any West Indian fast bowler on his debut. Perhaps a spinner will do it for a change, like Lance Gibbs - 17 wickets in his first series - or Alfred Valentine, with eight in his first Test. The unheralded Kenny Benjamin undermined England in the first innings four years ago. The West Indies remain masters of disguise. Rose, Mervyn Dillon or Reon King, a Guyanan fast bowler in the mould of Croft, will be itching to make a name for themselves.

We should know this week the slant of England's thinking. With only two warm-up games, time in the middle is vital for the potential Test players. Indications are that Jack Russell will return to keep wicket, though his idiosyncratic resistance in the lower middle order could be as critical as his assurance behind the stumps. That releases Alec Stewart, either to resume his opening partnership with Atherton, so profitable in the Caribbean last time, or, if Mark Butcher shapes up, to revert to number three. Either way, Stewart will be on the back foot where he belongs.

Pressure, applied through long, hot days in the field, will be the key to England's welfare, doubly so now that Darren Gough has gone in the hamstring. The selection of Fraser is looking smarter by the day. Atherton hankers to pair his two spinners, Robert Croft and Tufnell, but Jamaica and Barbados, the two "result" pitches, will not encourage such extravagance any more than the balance of the England batting or the small grounds. Caddick, Fraser, Headley, Tufnell is the most likely quartet.

History suggests that first blood will be drawn in Jamaica, literally if Walsh's systematic assault on Atherton is Exhibit A. West Indies 2, England 1 is the tally at Sabina Park over the past three tours. As Edgbaston showed last summer, victory would not be conclusive but, with Trinidad liable to be slow and Guyana flooded, it would be a long haul back were England to lose, while morale in the home camp would rise like mercury. Nothing creates the illusion of unity in the Islands as instantly as victory.